Any expat who enjoys reading has no doubt devoured a title or ten about their host country. I'm no exception - or maybe I am the exception in that I really love fictional books set in Japan and written by foreigners. Don't get me wrong; I have plenty of beloved titles by Japanese authors, and I've enjoyed many of the classics, from Genji to Murakami. (I will cover some of those in another post!) However, fiction stories that present life in Japan - good or ill - as viewed by visitors or permanent residents have always caught my interest.
Here are some favourites that I highly recommend.
(Synopses provided by Amazon)
[Amazon US / Amazon Canada]
After a year away at college, military brat Bernadette Root has come “home” to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, to spend the summer with her bizarre yet comforting clan. Ruled by a strict, regimented Air Force Major father, but grounded in their mother’s particular brand of humor, Bernie’s family was destined for military greatness during the glory days of the mid-’50s. But in Base life, where an unkempt lawn is cause for reassignment, one fateful misstep changed the Roots’ world forever. Yet the family’s silence cannot keep the wounds of the past from reemerging . . . nor can the memory fade of beloved Fumiko, the family’s former maid, whose name is now verboten. And the secrets long ago covered up in classic military style–through elimination and denial–are now forcing their way to the surface for a return engagement.
I picked up The Yokota Officers Club more recently, here in Toronto while trying to put some of the reverse culture shock at bay. When she saw it in one of our shared spaces, my roommate commented that I always read "the weirdest books." Well.
Must have been the title?
Max Danger, The Adventures of an Expat in Tokyo, by Robert J. Collins
Follow the adventures of Tokyo’s favorite expatriate Max Danger, as he weaves his way in and out of the intricacies and dilemmas of living in Japan from baffling bilingual breakfast meetings, through the mind-boggling enigmas of doing business in Japan, to the dubious pleasures of late-night hostess clubs.
Max Danger seems to exhaust himself just trying to make it through the day.
This collection of short stories is showing its age considerably, but it's still a quirky look at what living in Tokyo was like for an expat businessman in the 1980s, at the height of the "bubble economy." Personally, I couldn't get over the way they took taxis everywhere around Tokyo. Taxis! Seriously!?
The print version can be picked up secondhand, or try the new Kindle release for this one.
Ash, by Holly Thompson
Caitlin Ober is back in Japan, teaching English in Kyushu. Some 15 years ago, as a little girl, Caitlin lived in Kyoto, but a tragic accident drove her and her family back to America. Now guilt obscures her path, just as ashfall from a nearby volcano covers Kagoshima in dust. In a garden Caitlin meets a teenage half-Japanese girl, Naomi, who may be someone Caitlin can save this time around. Together the two travel to Kyoto during O-Bon, the festival when the dead return. Amid bonfires, temple grounds, and ghostly memories, Caitlin bravely embraces her future. Ash is a bittersweet novel of redemptive beauty, of startling images and alluring details.
This novel is stunning. I really have no other words for it. It is poignant and beautiful both in its characters and in its setting, and is far and away my favourite novel about Japan by any author, foreign or otherwise. The lucky grab of this book at a book sale in Tokyo was very fortunate, and the author has written another novel on Japan that is at the top of my reading list.
The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery
'When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate...What I asked for? Any life but this one.' When Aurelia flees the fire that kills her missionary uncle and leaves her orphaned and alone in nineteenth-century Japan, she has no idea how quickly her wish will be answered. Knowing only a few words of Japanese she hides in a tea house and is adopted by the family who own it: gradually falling in love with both the tea ceremony and with her young mistress, Yukako. As Aurelia grows up she devotes herself to the family and its failing fortunes in the face of civil war and western intervention, and to Yukako's love affairs and subsequent marriage. But her feelings for her mistress are never reciprocated and as tensions mount in the household Aurelia begins to realise that to the world around her she will never be anything but an outsider. A lushly detailed, spellbinding story, "The Teahouse Fire" is an unforgettable debut.
The Teahouse Fire is a title I was very into right up until the ending. I suppose I felt that the way the story went after a certain point wasn't the way I wanted, though from a literary standpoint it certainly was dramatic. Still, I'd highly recommend this novel, especially for fans of Memoirs of a Geisha - it's a great way to learn more about ancient Japanese fine arts.
Have more recommendations for me? Leave them in the comments! Or check out some of these other fine Japan-centric books: